French film has Huppert as coffee planter in Africa

Sun Sep 6, 2009 1:12pm EDT
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By Silvia Aloisi

VENICE (Reuters) - Acclaimed actress Isabelle Huppert plays a French expatriate farmer facing civil war in Cameroon in "White Material," a violent family drama presented at the Venice film festival on Sunday.

As government troops battle rebels around her coffee plantation, Huppert's character Maria Vial is determined not to abandon the place where she built her life and return with her family to the safety of France.

Frightened native laborers one by one desert her, as the troops close in on the rebel leader and his army of rugged child soldiers. But Huppert digs her heels in, almost blind to the danger which is about to destroy her household.

"It's a woman who seems very much in control, who knows how to run an enterprise and lead people, how to drive a tractor and a truck. But her weakness is this land she does not want to give up," Huppert said in an interview with Reuters.

"At first it's legitimate but then it becomes like a disease, everything is going up in smoke and you don't want to face the reality."

Director Claire Denis, who grew up in Africa, said she drew inspiration from Doris Lessing's novel "The Grass is Singing" about racial relations in what is now Zimbabwe. A photograph of the British writer briefly appears in her film, which is competing for the top prize at the Venice festival.

"White Material" touches on the legacy of the colonial past, its impact on both expatriates and natives, and the price paid by civilian populations during war.

The lush landscapes of Cameroon and some of those themes were also present in Denis' 1988 work "Chocolat," perhaps her best known film internationally.   Continued...

<p>French actress Isabelle Huppert poses during a photocall at the 66th Venice Film Festival September 6, 2009. Huppert stars in the movie "White Material" directed by French director Claire Denis. REUTERS/Tony Gentile</p>